Friday 19 January 2018

Losing hurt him deeply, losing him hurts deeper still

Tributes are paid to Anthony Foley at Shannon RFC clubhouse gate in Thomond Park last night. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tributes are paid to Anthony Foley at Shannon RFC clubhouse gate in Thomond Park last night. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The sun never stops shining in Paris, but there is darkness in all our hearts.

How can it be so?

'They broke the mould when they made Anthony Foley'. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
'They broke the mould when they made Anthony Foley'. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

A fun job, following a wonderful team and its colourful supporters, now bathed in a tragic undertone of devastating grief and insurmountable sadness.

All we can do is hug each other and seek, somehow, to find consolation. We only came here to watch a game of rugby, not to mourn one of this land's most cherished sons.

A sense of community clings to us like cellophane; the voices of Shannon and St Munchin's College and Limerick joining with tributes from far-flung émigrés in Luxembourg and beyond.

Heartened words of tribute, too, from Parisian locals, the battle for rugby eminence supplanted by this universal suffering.

"It was not just in Munster and Irish rugby that Anthony Foley is respected," said Racing 92 coach Laurent Labit, whose staff includes Ronan O'Gara, Foley's friend and long-time colleague.

"It is a terrible shock. He is respected in France for his performances for Munster and Ireland. He is part of the history of Munster, he is Monsieur Munster, the same as Serge Blanco in Biarritz or Philippe Sella in Agen. It is a tragedy," said Labit.

"Ronan and he have been great friends and colleagues for years. This was the last thing anyone expected coming here to play a match."

They broke the mould when they made Anthony Foley. They could not forge another like him in these professional times. How could they?

He was not made for these times, yet he still managed to broach the link between the amateur and professional era like no other.

In a sport where assembly lines of usually unthinking behemoths are pumping iron from their fledgling teenage years, before being funnelled into the rigorous play-books of ultra-professional sides, Foley spoke of a distant time when character and integrity - intangible qualities - were more required of its warriors.

"I think of all the times I roomed with him," recalls ex-professional Liam Toland. "Wonderful times, on tour with Schools, Munster 20s, Ireland U-21s, the Student World Cup in 1996, Irish squads. The fun and the craic.

"And I try to think of what is unique about him. To be the man who lifted the Heineken Cup, me not so fussed about Munster doing it, but more the fact that it was him doing it.

"The simplicity with which he saw what most of us made complicated is his greatest gift. He had such clarity of thought.

"He had so much intelligence within him and intelligence comes in so many varied ways. But one of those was his ability to see what others saw as complicated and to render it in the most simplest of terms.

"And that is a wonderful, intelligent ability to have. He was learning how to do that as a coach.

"But as a player, with him or against him, you would wonder what in God's name does he do it? But you only understood it completely when you played with him.

"Because, statistically, the value of that intelligence, for a guy who won 62 caps, the modern professional can't understand that intelligence because you can't quantify it, you can't put a numerical value on it.

"You can't put it on a chart, your 'PB in intelligence'. I don't know if you rate that any more. He wins his first cap in 1995 against England and then falls out of favour. But then he rallied in professionalism and he got 60-odd more caps."

That force of personality defined him, driving the once famed Shannon team to a string of All-Ireland titles - the collective which, along with the other famous clubs in the province, would soon backbone Munster's emergence as a European force.

So often denied by cruel fate, their quest to win the Holy Grail seemed at times a distant, quaint, unlikely fairy tale, but he made it become a reality.

He defied expectations of him and his Munster colleagues.

When Leinster unwittingly - or perhaps not - involved themselves in the leaking of some unfavourable IRFU reports of declining fitness levels in Munster, Foley's response was typical.

In Thomond Park, he would score a try from the halfway line and roar at Eddie Halvey beneath the posts: "Who's slow now, ha!"

And he would lift the Heineken Cup, too. This was the tenth year anniversary and he had celebrated that day with colleagues until recently at a series of commemorations, continuing at Mick Galwey's 50th birthday last weekend.

When they finally fell over the line in Cardiff, it wasn't a matter of how or why they had done it. It was simply a case of, as Van Morrison wrote once, "it just is".

"It is a day for heart, isn't it really, not the head," Sky commentator and former England out-half Stuart Barnes, supposedly here on commentary duty, but now, reluctantly, pressed for a eulogy.

"I'd like to think I was an Englishman who had a massive affection for Munster, not always for how they played, but the guts with which they played and the intelligence and integrity with which they played.

"As a Bath man, we prided ourselves on locality and for that reason I loved the Munster locality and wallowed in their European runs. It felt like a Celtic version of something I knew, to the times 10 obviously.

"And, for me, I always hoped at some stage as a broadcaster I would see them lift that Heineken Cup.

"And then it happened in 2006 at Cardiff, after that Biarritz game, a pig ugly match, but it didn't really matter.

"And that moment when Anthony Foley lifted that trophy up to the skies was something special.

"Every now and then you do your 10 favourite broadcasting memories and although it may not necessarily be one or two, it is always up there. And I've been playing this game a long time.

"The emotion on the man and the fact that it was someone right at the heart of Munster lifting it was very special.

"I'd like to think I have some idea how people felt then. I don't know if I can now.

"Those nearer home are feeling something quite different.

"Now it is 10 years and we're in Paris at the home of the French champions. And were he on that field, 10 years younger, he'd have said, let's slug the buggers down. And he would have probably done it."

I can still recall Galwey, a soldier in the trenches with Foley on so many disappointing days, at the back of the press room in Cardiff on that momentous day, shouting: "Ah Gwan Foley!" he genuinely would not have been happier had he lifted the jug himself.

Declan Kidney dropped him en route to Munster's second Heineken Cup win in 2008, but Foley's role in that campaign was undiminished in its influence, as the testaments from those in that side regularly confirm.

Len Dineen, the veteran broadcaster and former Old Crescent prop, recalls that when Brendan, Anthony's father, used to play for Ireland, he'd tell Moss Keane in Twickenham or other forbidding places: "You'd better play well today, Mossy, or I'll be dropped."


He usually, unfairly, was. That his son compiled 62 caps was a tribute to his tenacity of spirit, even though he was often singled out just as unfairly.

Ireland still have not beaten the All Blacks, but on the 2005 tour there they had one of their better chances; had he been brought on the field in those final 10 minutes, rugby history could have recorded another defining moment in his career.

Lamentably, he remained unused. It was amusing when the 2006 winners were feted in Limerick a year later.

Foley's phone rang as he was being interviewed on O'Connell St. "It must be Ireland looking for a recall!" he joked.

The crowd swirled in hilarity. Although never prouder to play for Ireland, he was first and foremost, a man of Shannon, a man of Munster.

That community is particularly rocked this morning. He represented them with every inch of his being and perceived any side who threatened the Thomond Park citadel as almost serving up a personal insult to those of his locality.

That sense of place today mourns and celebrates as one.

"He was brought into the Shannon dressing-room as a kid, he had it before he could walk, he lived and breathed rugby in the locality," observes Dineen. 
"He was a true Shannon man, they won so many All-Ireland titles. He brought that attitude to Munster, 'circle the wagons'. The team talks were riveting. They were unbeaten for so long and that was his driving passion."

He didn't have the natural, 'hail fellow' character of, say, a Gaillimh.

He always secreted his disappointments well, his successes even better.

Unfailingly modest, few penetrated the famed Foley exterior.

However, those who did were warmly greeted by a jocular, warm-hearted giant of a man. There were times I would interview him, and he would speak for lengthy periods with his eyes almost clasped, fluttering eyelashes a barrier to the revelation of the full self.

You could joke with him ahead of a Man United v Spurs match and evoke a wondrous grin; unlike some thin-skinned pros, he never shirked an awkward question, or demurred from delivering a difficult answer.

But there were so many who benefited from his undying loyalty and faithful trust - friends, family and colleagues. He didn't suffer fools gladly or take prisoners on the field. If you gave him everything, he would return more.

Remarkably, he still holds the try-scoring record for Munster in Europe (22) and until recently led the club's all-time charts; 39 in 202 appearances does not derive from luck, but by that rugby intelligence decreeing exactly what place to be in at exactly the right time.

The only place he wanted to be was with Munster and the only time he wanted to enjoy was winning. Losing hurt him deeply, perhaps too deeply. Losing him now hurts deeply too.

But then Munster only achieved greatness through adversity.

That was his great life's lesson. So cruel that it had to end so, so quickly.

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